Sold as a Dream for Black Buyers, a New Orleans Neighborhood is a Toxic Nightmare
Twenty-eight years have gone by, but Joshua Allen Akeem still remembers the knock at the door. Strangers from the Environmental Protection Agency walked into his house and spoke to his mom. She buried her face in her hands. “‘Please tell me this is not true,’” he recalled her saying, “over and over and over.”
It was true.
Viola Allen’s dream home sits atop a nightmare. The city of New Orleans built 67 ranch-style houses on a sprawling former garbage dump in the late 1970s without saying a word to the Black, mostly first-time home buyers who were encouraged to move there by city officials. Under the untreated soil where the new residents planted fruit trees, grew flower gardens and watched their children play in the dirt were 149 toxic contaminants, 49 of them linked to cancer, according to an analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The saga of 57 families living on the former Agriculture Street Landfill in the Gordon Plaza housing subdivision is considered by many to be one of the worst examples of environmental injustice in the United States.
The boundaries of the old landfill were certified as a Superfund site in 1994. And now, nearly three decades after residents finally learned they were living on deadly ground, government officials have refused their demand to be relocated from homes that lost their appeal and nearly all of their value. The properties are almost impossible to sell because of the contamination, said Akeem, who was 11 when EPA officials and environmental experts visited his mom that day in 1993.
Even more audacious, lawyers and advocates for the homeowners say, is that after residents were originally awarded a $90 million state court judgment against the city — which approved the construction — officials have refused to pay. The housing authority, which funded the development with federal dollars, and the public school system, which built an elementary school at the site well after the contamination was revealed, have also refused to pay their share of the damages.